Blair's volte-face

Print edition : May 21, 2004

The credibility crisis that the British Prime Minister faces on the question of European Constitution is likely to be a short-term price he is paying for long-term gains.

PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair's change of policy on whether Britain should have a referendum on adopting the European Constitution, currently under discussion, followed a now familiar pattern.

Prime Minister Tony Blair outside 10 Downing Street.-DAVID BEBBER/REUTERS

First, there were rumours of a change planted with favoured journalists, then television interviews hinting at a change, and the last people to find out were the elected representatives of the people, the House of Commons. There is a keen irony here. New Labour Ministers, led by Blair, have formerly been hotly insistent that there would be no referendum because Parliament is sovereign and could ratify any European Constitution without recourse to a plebiscite.

However, as Blair himself admitted in his parliamentary volte-face, the clamour for a referendum, particularly from the popular press, has become irresistible.

For months now, the Blairites have been nervous of losing support from the popular dailies. Most frightening of all, there are worries that Rupert Murdoch's influential titles, particularly Britain's biggest selling daily The Sun is developing a sympathy for the resurgent Tories. Murdoch is a well-known "Euroskeptic" and his titles have led the clamour for a referendum.

There is no question that Blair's U-turn has been extremely embarrassing and undermined Blair's credibility, which has already been badly damaged by an unending list of revelations about the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

But, Blair has calculated that whatever the damage caused by his humiliation by the aggressive and skilful Opposition leader Michael Howard at the Despatch Box, his party will be well shut of the image that it was preventing the people from having a say on Britain's future role in Europe. Opinion polls indicate that Europe is an ever unpopular issue with the voters and by promising a referendum, which will only take place after this summer's Euro elections, and even more importantly after the next British general elections, Blair has effectively prevented Europe from becoming a decisive issue in either elections.

However, there are still embarrassments, not least the ambiguity about the status of the referendum. Will it be binding, or merely consultative? Doubters of the value of a referendum recall that in Ireland and Denmark where plebiscites on Europe went against the wishes of the government and the E.U. (European Union), the voters were asked to vote again after a cosmetic period of time had elapsed.

The normally guarded Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, added to the confusion by saying that if it was clear that voters only disagreed with "parts" of the Constitution, then the government might not feel obliged to be bound by the referendum. As the ballot paper question can only be "do you agree to the Constitution", how anyone could extract the knowledge that the people only disagreed with parts is something of a puzzle.

Blair's volte-face has caused consternation in Europe. Previously, as mentioned, two previous referendums, in Denmark and Ireland, have gone against the onward march of European integration. France only ratified the Maastricht Treaty by the narrowest of margins and the French are unlikely to run the risk of resorting to another close run.

Some countries are obliged by their own Constitutions to have a referendum. Other countries may well feel under pressure to concede a referendum now that Blair, previously so adamantly against it, has conceded.

Indeed, it is this enhanced chance of referendums elsewhere - which could conceivably lead to the rejection of the Constitution elsewhere - which may let Blair off the hook at home. By the time of the United Kingdom's referendum, some other country may have rejected the Constitution, and Blair may not have to put the question here. His temporary embarrassment in Spring 2004 could turn out to be a very clever Machiavellian move by Spring 2005.

Blair has become a past master at postponing difficult decisions in the hope, even knowledge, that something will turn up in the meantime to change the picture.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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